The 2012 GAA Handball 40x20 Championships in each province are now in full swing and many of the key grades look set to be keenly contested, namely the minor, intermediate and senior codes.
Players of the highest caliber include recently-crowned USA junior winners, Clare’s Colin Crehan (under-17) and Cork’s Killian Carroll (under-19), former Irish minor champion from Galway, Martin Mulkerrins, and Monaghan’s Darren Doherty. These are just four of the rising young stars in the game aspiring for silverware in the adult grades.
One player who certainly knows what to expect in Championship handball is four-time Golden Gloves victor from Antrim Ricky McCann. The Gort Na Mona clubman has played across the world and has been a regular top-five ranked player in Ireland for well over a decade.
McCann has always been a close finisher in the major events since 2000, but he has never realised his dream goal of an All-Ireland senior gong.
The fact is few players in that period have managed the illustrious feat. Only three men, Dublin’s Eoin Kennedy, Cork’s Tony Healy and Cavan's Paul Brady have shared the most sought after title since 1999.
The top flight has enjoyed some absorbing contests in recent times, but only Brady has reached the pinnacle since 2005.
Runner up in 2010 and 2011, Armagh’s Charlie Shanks is currently out of the equation as he now resides in New York where he has established himself as a top-five player on the US circuit.
That leaves Westmeath’s Robbie McCarthy as the number one contender for Brady’s throne. McCarthy stopped Dublin’s Kennedy from capturing his eighth 60x30 singles softball win last September and he is in pole position to do likewise against Brady this term.
While Brady has missed out on serious 40x20 action since last year’s triumph due to injury, in the interim McCarthy scooped the 2011 US Open title last October in California. The gap has surely narrowed between the two since Brady controlled the Mullingar ace in the 2011 semis.
The national crown is somewhat in the distance right now, but next weekend, Brady will be gunning for the Ulster senior title.
McCann is seeded at two for the Ulster provincial battle, behind Brady, and would be considered as his chief threat alongside Kingscourt’s Michael Finnegan.
Regarded as one of the fittest and most finely-tuned senior athletes on the circuit, 33-year-old fitness instructor McCann has tweaked his approach this season to ensure he is as competitive as ever for all the main events in 2012. That includes the World Championships, scheduled for the City West Arena in October.
McCann said: “Preparations for the upcoming season have been deliberately slow. In the past I would have been flying at this time of year only to be burned out by the end of February or March.
"For me, it's all about getting it right for the worlds. My main target is the worlds. Through injuries and work, I’ve never played in them so this is the main tournament for me.
“In terms of being regarded as an experienced campaigner, it’s sad but true. I can no longer rely on athleticism and fitness as much as I used to so it's all about playing smart for me now.
“The key men in Ulster are the usual suspects. Of course you have Paul Brady, and then there's Michael Finnegan, who’s playing well and very relaxed, as is Sean Devine (Antrim) and then you have the younger Tyrone lads coming through like Dara Daly.
“Looking at the whole of Ireland, you'll have [Robbie] McCarthy, who has improved his conditioning over the past few years, as he’s always had the talent.
“Then you have the likes of Eoin Kennedy (Dublin), Joe McCann (Mayo) and the dark horse is young Killian Carroll from Cork, who has an amazing future ahead of him.”
McCann, the twice USA Open doubles winner and former Boston Open champion, enters the senior title race with as much experience under his belt as any other in the draw.
With his equally effective hands, thorough knowledge of the 40x20 court and highly-tuned anticipatory skills, he may still prove too big a hurdle for many, including that younger talent aiming to break through.
Meanwhile, there will also be top-class action in Munster, Leinster and Connacht.
In the Leinster series, Westmeath's Robbie McCarthy will be top seeded with players such as Meath's Brian Carroll and Wexford's Gavin Buggy amongst his main challengers for top ranking points.
In Munster, there is one of the most competitive events in years with a host of rising young stars emerging.
Diarmaid Nash (Clare) will be top seeded with Seamus O'Carroll (Limerick), Dominick Lynch (Kerry), Killian Carroll (Cork) and Ger Coonan (Tipperary) all part of a highly-competitive field.
In Connacht, Dessie Keegan, Joe McCann and Vinnie Moran (all Mayo) will hold the aces, but many eyes will be focusing on Galway’s rising star, Martin Mulkerrins, in the series.
In the Ulster ladies, Antrim’s Fiona Shannon and Aisling Reilly will be top seeded, with highly regarded Down starlet Lorraine Havern sure to go close.
While Marianna Rushe and Leona Doolin (both Roscommon) and Pauline Gallagher (Mayo) will be amongst the top seeds in a competitive Connacht Ladies Open series.
In Munster, things could not be more interesting as Kerry’s Maria Daly ultimately goes in search of a third consecutive All-Ireland Senior Singles title, while Cork prodigy Catriona Casey actually claimed the Munster senior crown 12 months ago while still a minor. Ashley Prendiville will ensure this is a riveting competition.
In Leinster, Wicklow’s Shauna Hilley will be hoping to start a memorable year with another provincial title win.